The Commonwealth Short Story Prize has announced the five regional winners from Africa, Asia, Canada & Europe, Caribbean, and the Pacific regions. In partnership with Commonwealth Writers, Granta is publishing each of the winning stories online this week. This selection showcases the exciting emerging talents, writers who bring a thrilling and essential glimpse of the world and the worlds that are within Britain. Today we bring you the winning entry from the Caribbean (Trinidad and Tobago), Sharon Millar’s ‘The Whale House’, and an interview with the author, which you can read here.
These offshore islands rise out of the water, rugged and black with deep crevices and craggy promontories. Her father used to tell the story of building the house. Dynamite under the water to blow a hole in the hill, a false plateau appearing like a shelf, the hill buckled up behind it. Sometimes, after heavy rain, stones clatter lightly on the roof as the soil shifts and moves behind the house. Her parents’ ashes are buried here in the rocky, flinty soil, but Laura and Mark scatter the baby’s ashes in the ocean, looking for black-finned porpoises as the talcum-powder dust hovers on the misty spray. When Mark releases the last of the ashes they drive the boat towards the house in silence. Laura is the first to slip over the side, wading carefully towards the shore, eyes on the horizon. Over the years she’s learned to watch for scorpion fish and the low-lying stingrays that rise like illusions when dusk slides into the bay.
Mark had cried in the hospital, but now, after they’ve scattered the ashes, there’s just the heat of blame rising off him. Even in the boat, he’d passed her with averted eyes. Later that night, she waits for him lying on her side of the two single beds pushed together. But by time he comes up from the jetty she is already dreaming hard. Under the sepia mosquito net, she lies on her side, a small feather pillow between her legs. The mosquitoes settle in dark clumps on the netting, whining softly into the night air.
By morning the dreams are gone, flying through the tiny holes in the net in sudden starling movements. The twin beds are pushed together and the net strains to cover both beds. She wakes with the mist of the dreams still heavy in the room and moves up behind her husband, trying to wrap her body around his larger one. To reach him she must lie on the join in the bed. The hard knotted bump where the mattresses meet bites into her hip, but she lies still, matching her breathing to his soft exhalations; when she feels his breathing change, she knows he’s awake. Overnight their legs have tangled, their limbs sealing in the humidity but slowly he inches his leg away with the soft mollusk sound of flesh separating. She rolls back over onto her side and he leaves the room without speaking.
Would the baby have survived if she’d rested in the afternoons, stayed in bed as the doctor had advised? Mark has not accused her of endangering the baby. Such a bald statement would take them to a dangerous edge. So instead it is hovering between them, nebulous and monstrous. She had not rested enough, she knows, but it had been a time of neither wanting or not wanting, a strangely remote period. It is that indifference that she is exploring, testing it as gently as a tongue on a wound. She’d thought the feeling hidden, so solidly concealed that she’d doubted its potency. But now there is no baby, the grief has come upon her, making her bones hollow. An empty womb is punishment no man can understand. And if he did, there would be no judgment.
Out the window, the tide is changing, the sea frothing and roiling into the tight channel. But beyond, in the harbor, it expands in relieved swells, glad to be past the slick mountain walls. Four months ago, Laura had gone to see Dr Harnaysingh. She’d made the appointment because at forty-six, her body was suddenly an unknown entity. Once calm and predictable, a source of surety and absolutes, it was now dense, fleshy, prone to thickened skin and odd middle-aged lust. She’d missed three periods, but pregnancy was not something she’d considered. She’d been researching menopause and hormone-replacement options. When she’d told Mark, he’d lifted her nightie, rested his dark head between her ribs and hipbones, and traced gentle circles around the hard space above her pubic bone. She’d imagined a light swooping and fluttering deep inside of her as Mark murmured to the quicksilver heartbeat, that mere conspiracy of cells. A baby.
The day she’d felt the new baby’s first movements, she cracked three eggs. She separated the yolks from the whites; each yellow globe quivering gently on the edge of a shell as the clear albumin streamed into the bowl. Alone, in their blue bowl, the yolks leaned into one another, separated by the thinnest of membranes. Gently she skewered them, holding the bowl tightly to gain purchase on the slippery surfaces. When she next saw Dr Harnaysingh, she lied, smoothly and easily, assuring him that she was being careful and staying off her feet. At home, she continued to bake; cakes, casseroles, soufflés; balancing on the stepladder as she lugged down heavy iron pots and ancient mixing bowls. She even weeded the back stairs, squatting heavily on the mossy concrete, the varicose veins in her ankles thudding in protest.
‘Shouldn’t you be resting more?’ Mark asked.
The baby was born at just twenty eight weeks.
‘Come baby, breathe.’ Dr Harnaysingh said.
Mark sat in the corner of the room his head in his hands. Laura stretched the lavender baby along the inside of her arms, the perfect feet pressing against her breasts, the heels of her hands supporting the fragile head. Cupping the tender skull with both hands, she kissed the violet fingers, ears and toes, running her fingers along the butterfly eyebrows. To keep her warm she pulled the baby close to her breast, swaddling and rocking her. After three hours, Dr Harnaysingh sedated her so they could pry the baby from her.
‘Can babies feel regret?’ Laura asked Dr Harnaysingh as the opiate dripped into her veins.
Now the ashes have sunk to the bottom of the sea. Mark is downstairs, the musical sound of his spoon beating the cup. The room Laura lies in faces the sea. It was her parents’ room. Her father built four rooms, three that face the sea and a smaller one that looks into the flinty soil of the hill. The small room is the nursery with its tiny cots and miniature bunks. When the children were little, she often woke in the night panicked that the toddlers had been swept away in the night currents. A neighbour deeper in the bay had lost a two-year-old that way, the child climbing out of his crib and making his way down the stairs and over the jetty. In those days, Laura’s stairs had had two wrought-iron gates, one at the top and one at the bottom, each padlocked with a little gold key.
From the window she sees Jeannine on the jetty. It still surprises her that this is her firstborn. There is an old photograph of Laura holding Jeannine and smiling at the camera. The caption reads: What a great big sister! Monos 1982. She’s sure her parents suspected she was sleeping with Mark, but what could they do? It had only stopped when they’d been caught. But by that time she was already pregnant. A small copse of trees runs down the hill stopping before the jetty. Does her mother’s plot with medicinal herbs still exist? If her mother were alive, she would know what poultices to place on Laura’s aching breasts. She’d had one for a cough and one to lower blood pressure. But Laura only remembers the one meant to flush a womb and make the blood run red and clean. Its romantic name conjured crystal lights and grown-up parties that made you forget the spiky vicious head and bitter green stems. Chandelier bush. A strong brew could make a womb vomit a baby. It’s good for cramps, her mother had said. It will help bring down a reluctant period. Clean you out good and proper. But it had not worked because Laura learned to hold the noxious green tea in her mouth until she could spit it out. The period never came. You have your whole life ahead of you, her mother said. Drink it. But she didn’t.
Her own teenagers are downstairs now. Aidan is seventeen; Sonia, nineteen. Aidan’s girlfriend, Ivy, honey-coloured and wholesome, is there as well. They are baking a cake for her, to cheer her up. Later they will all walk to the other side of the island for a swim. When she turned sixteen, her mother baked a cake and gave her a ruby ring, July’s birthstone. Mark left for school that September. Laura had been due to go as well but all that had been cancelled. Her mother was only forty-six, still young enough to have a baby and heavy enough that no one doubted the pregnancy. Her father had closed his practice and taken up a temporary locum job in St Kitts, moving the family there until Jeannine was born. Her mother delivered Jeannine in Laura’s bedroom. Laura laboured for a full day and a night on the flowered shower curtain that her mother placed below her, the pains sawing her until she split in two with Jeannine as the baby slipped into her mother’s waiting hands. Now there were two of them. In that small room so long ago, she’d seen her mother’s face change as she held Jeannine, seen the longing.
Once years later, after Mark and Laura were married, they’d gone to Tobago on holiday. Sonia and Aidan were little things. They’d stopped at the famous mystery tomb of twenty-three year-old Betty Stivens. She was a mother without knowing it, and a wife without letting her husband know it, except by her kind indulgences to him. 1783. What does that mean, Mummy? Sonia asked her again and again. Could you be my mother and not know it? No, baby, of course not. That’s why it’s a mystery tomb. But she couldn’t get Betty Stivens out of her mind. Maybe she had not been as lucky as Laura, had not had a father as a doctor and a nurse as a mother. Maybe she’d never lived to see the child. Maybe she’d laboured to death in some dark room on her own. It’s like a riddle, she’d said to Sonia, and no one knows what it really means.
Mark never knew. Only Laura had been left with her split self and a new sibling. By the time, he’d come back, it was too late to tell him. How could she? And how could they take Jeannine from her parents? Even after she’d had Sonia, then Aidan, she still glanced at Jeannine out of the corners of her eyes. When her parents were killed in an accident, coming home after a weeknight Chinese food meal, it was all too late to tell. Now she is the only one who knows.
Later that morning, they walk to the calm side of the island. Mark leads the way with the teenagers; Sonia, Aidan and Ivy. To get to the leeward cove, they walk in single file. The path is flanked by wooden posts painted with creosote. At the beach, the teenagers settle on volcanic rocks that ring the protected bay. Sonia and Ivy spread their towels on hardened lava, flat and smooth. When they lie back, their breasts fall to their sides, straining against the thin bikini tops, the bright flash of a navel ring on Ivy’s stomach. Aidan is looking at Ivy from under lowered lashes. Laura remembers the teenage dance, the game of limbs tangled underwater. Aidan opens his tackle box and iridescent lures tumble out. As he works, he glances at Ivy, who is lying with a thin arm thrown over her eyes, exposing child-like ribs. He baits the rod, the line arcing in a silver flash over the water.
Laura is ashamed of her swollen stomach, her veiny thighs. Her leaky body feels old and sad as she settles on the beach, panting slightly and breathing through her mouth. Like an old dog. She sits on the folding chair and puts her feet up on the cooler, her eyes closing in the heat, dozing under the blue sky, her eyelashes filtering rainbows. Jeannine settles next to her, gathering her heavy hair up and into a ponytail. Laura senses her leaning back, turning her face up to the sun. She wants to remind her to wear sunblock especially on the star-shaped birthmark that always burns. Instead she thinks of how she can phrase her words.
‘Did Mummy ever brew a tea when you had cramps?’ Laura is drowsy but she takes care with her words.
‘Chandelier bush? Once I think. It tasted it terrible. I was sixteen or seventeen.’ Jeannine says. ‘We can send the kids to find some. I’ll brew some for you tonight, it might help clean you out. Get rid of all that bad blood.’
When she opens her eyes, the sun is lower in the sky and Jeannine is drawing a map on a napkin and pointing to the cliff side. Aidan stands watching, opalescent drops of water beading the small of his back.
‘Pick as much as you can,’ Jeannine calls as they leave.
Late afternoon comes, and they have not returned. Laura and Mark mill around the beach, reluctant to leave. But they are old enough to know how to get home. They are probably at the house waiting. When they arrive, the house is silent in the gloom. Sonia’s slippers are at the bottom of the stairs, her bikini drying on the line. She, at least, has come back. Just behind the mountain, the new moon is rising, a fingernail sliver of light.
‘They didn’t go in the boat,’ says Jeannine looking out the window. ‘Even the small skip is here.’
On the water, the boat is secure on its mooring.
Mark changes his clothes upstairs. When he comes down, he’s packed a small torch and a whistle, passing without touching her. From the jetty she sees where he is going. He is climbing the path to the whale house. Has he forgotten the channel in the side of the cliff, the hidden passage that runs to the heart of the island?
Out of the house, Laura imagines swimming. Under the thin moon, the plankton is glowing, shimmering like something alive in the water. Behind their island lies larger Chacachacare, with the decaying buildings of the abandoned leper colony. Its lighthouse, still powered by an ancient cogged wheel, floated on a circular bed of mercury. She’s stood here many times, under the copse of trees. She counts thirteen seconds before the beam sweeps the bay. Through the trees, perhaps there is the flicker of a candle throwing shadows on the wall.
In the rainy season, water runs off the land and cascades into the crevice, flattening the wild orchids that cling to the rocks and making the brackish water sweet. The water appears just beyond the trees, the crack in the seamless wall of cliff only visible if you know where to look. Laura unties the skip, sliding the oars into the sea. She manoeuvers the little boat into the stream of water, rowing hard against the current. She rows for ten minutes more, sweating now, and pulls into an alcove with three small steps. Two coconut trees mark the spot and she ties the skip to the first tree. The climb is not long but she is winded by the time she reaches the top. The cottage has not changed much. It still stands under the silk cotton tree, its windows shuttered and closed. When she pushes open the door, they don’t see her. They are up under the window where the light is green and dim. Aidan is between Ivy’s spread honey legs. Ivy sees her first and makes a strangled cry, trying to push Aidan off and cover her breasts. Aidan climbs to his knees and turns to the door. Behind him, she catches a glimpse of Ivy, the pubic hair waxed to a tiny strip above the neat pink slit, the center moist and slick. Aidan’s face is shocked, moon-like in the dim light, his pants around his knees.
Chuck-wit-wit-wee-o, the Rufous Night Jar calls as she closes the door and runs down the path. Is this what her father saw? When she looks back, they have blown out the candle. Someone else can row the skip home. She is tired. After a few minutes, she veers off the path and lies down on the beaten earth. She does not think of the giant centipedes that live on these rocky islands, hiding under leaf litter. She is too tired to think of them. Far below, she hears the sea as it bucks past the girdled entrance.
‘Laura?’ Mark is standing over her.
The light from his torch had alerted her but she stayed silent until he rounded the corner and saw her. She can see he is torn between worry about the Aidan and Ivy and his desire to hold onto his anger, which he dares not voice to her.
‘They’re in the whale house,’ she said.
In the way of marriages, the unspoken flits yellow between them. She had not wanted Jeannine in the beginning. But that had changed. And it would have been the same for this baby. Baking cakes is not the way you throw a baby away.
‘You think I did it deliberately. You do. But you’re wrong.’ she said.
In a moment she is on her hands and knees, scrambling to her feet. She could tell him now. If there was ever a moment, it is now. But he has walked away, switching off the torch as he goes back down the path. There is no one else to row the skip home so she rests for a while before going to the boat. The hidden water with its sweetish-salt smell rises around her.
At the house, Mark says he will cook dinner. She says she will sleep for an hour. They don’t touch but the air is no longer muddy between them.
She is still sleeping, deeply and dreamlessly, when Jeannine comes into the bedroom. She wakes Laura with soft strokes along her back.
‘Wake up, it’s after ten,’ Jeannine says softly, the room chill with sea air. ‘This will make you feel better. It will help bring everything down.’
Jeannine has brewed a batch of Chandelier bush, mamba green in the clear glass. In the dim light, Jeannine’s eyes are liquid. She climbs into bed with Laura, pulling the covers over them both. Laura’s firstborn is in bed with her. The smell of the tea is the memory of a mother’s suspicion, a mother’s blame. I don’t understand, her mother had told Laura. This baby wants to be born.
‘It will clean out whatever is left.’ Jeannine says, trailing her fingers over Laura’s forehead, making the shushing noises Laura’s mother always made when they were sick.
Before midnight, Laura is doubled over with blinding cramps. On the jetty below, the nightline is ringing. Something big is fighting the hook.
‘Laura!’ calls Mark.
‘What is it? What did you catch?’ She answers him, matching the excitement in his voice. She knows they will never speak of the baby again.
The memory of the nightline comes back to her from her childhood; the things that would surface from the ocean! Once a four hundred pound grouper, once a hammerhead shark with its rows of teeth hidden in its misshapen head, each one rising up out of the black bay, fighting and pulling on the line, the bell ringing and ringing. By the time she’s come down the stairs, they’ve gutted the shark, an enormous mako with a flat wide head and dead, grey skin.
‘Come and see.’
The rows of tiny sharks are alive, wriggling and squirming in the cavity of their mother.
He stands behind her, pulling her back to his chest and rocking her, his head on her chin.
Photograph by Gail Frederick